Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Digging Up the Facts about New York's Subway System

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Digging Up the Facts about New York's Subway System

Article excerpt

IN February 1912, workers digging the tunnel for a branch of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit made an accidental archaeological find. It was another subway tunnel, built in 1868 by one Alfred Beach to operate on the technology of the day: air pressure. Beach reasoned that the tubes he had seen being used to rush mail around London (like vacuum systems still used in buildings to move cash around) could be used to move people.

Wary of Tammany Hall politicians, Beach built his line in secret. It went one block from Warren Street to Murray Street under Broadway. At one end was a huge compressor, snuck in from Indiana somehow. The subway car (there was only one) fit close to the sides.

When it opened, to great public sensation, he had further plans to sell stock and build a system throughout the city, depending not on air but on steam engines. People used to the clattering horse-drawn trolleys or omnibuses open to the weather thought that whizzing along under the streets was the height of modernity. Beach's plans, however, ran into a stock market panic three years later. The project was abandoned, to be rediscovered only when diggers later broke through and found the car and compressor still there, preserved for history.

The New York City subway system story is told in wonderful and odd vignettes in Clifton Hood's "722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York." The book, an authoritative new combination of political and technological history, is at times outrageously funny and fascinatingly intricate.

The subway system is the city and without it the place could not exist. There are 722 miles of track, making the New York system the longest in the world; laid out in a line it would reach from New York to Chicago. Forty-six percent of New Yorkers use it to go to work. The transit police force numbers over 4,000 officers, more than the entire Boston police department.

Like everything else in the sprawling, brawling city, the subway became the tool of politicians and speculators. Rapid transit made land values rise. William Steinway, the pianomaker, planned a transit system to Queens, where he had moved his factory to escape the union in Manhattan. …

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